Is China taking advantage of COVID-19 to pursue South China Sea ambitions?



With much of the world preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, China has continued to push its military objectives in the South China Sea. However, the US, Australia and Vietnam are not idly standing by.

Over the past months, as countries in the Pacific region were focused on battling the coronavirus, multiple sources reported that China stepped up patrols and naval exercises in the highly disputed South China Sea.

The activities of the Asian powerhouse in the region, however, did not slip by the eyes of Washington, which went on to accuse Beijing of “exploiting” its neighboring countries as they are “distracted” with the pandemic.

“We call on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea,” the US Department of State said in a statement in early April.

The accusation resurfaced over the weekend at a press conference during China’s legislative meetings in Beijing where China denied the allegations. “There is nothing to support the claim that China is using COVID-19 to expand its presence in the South China Sea,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Wang stated that China was working to support neighboring countries in their efforts against the virus and criticized the US for “politicizing” China’s actions as well as for “foreign meddling” in Hong Kong with regards to China’s proposal for imposing a new security legislation.

Longstanding tensions between the administrations of US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping also worsened in recent weeks over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War,” Wang told reporters on Sunday. The top Chinese diplomat did not identify the “forces” to which he was referring.